Abdullahi Ibrahim walked into Coffee Zone this week on a nearly 100-degree day with sweat pouring from his forehead. “It’s hell out there,” he said flashing a grin.
With a trash bag slung over his shoulder, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, he had just walked from Ellis Library, where he spends most days holed up in a reading room tapping out the daily column he writes for the Sudanese newspaper Al Ahadath. Momentarily, I had to remind myself I was meeting one of Africa’s most revered intellectuals, a man who earlier this year was a candidate for president in his homeland.
After several sips of cappuccino, he was in full bloom. As he unfurled stories and punctuated his points with raps on the table with a sugar packet, it was easy to see what makes this 68-year-old so unique. In a country beset by apathy, he cares. And he cares deeply.
Ibrahim did not win the presidency of Sudan in the April election. Not by a long shot. In fact, despite spending tens of thousands of dollars of his own money, his name didn’t even appear on the ballot. And though he said he never expected to win, he hoped for something more from his quixotic campaign. “I must tell you I’m coming out of this a little bit frustrated. I expected something better,” he said, “not much, but a little. … I didn’t realize that there is such a deep apathy.”
Ibrahim is a proud product of the 1960s, when university students, most of them Communists, helped topple the ruling military junta in Sudan. Marked by peaceful sit-ins in the face of brutal military crackdowns, the movement was a fleeting taste of grass-roots political change. He never forgot it. “We talked about revolution, we talked about change and it happened,” he said of his student days. “So, you can’t tell me — no one can convince me — that there is a regime that’s going to be in place forever.”
Since that high point in 1964, Sudan, Africa’s largest nation by landmass, has mostly been ruled by a succession of iron-fisted military rulers. It also has endured a shattering civil war between the north and the south and, more recently, a man-made humanitarian crisis in the western Darfur region.
Ibrahim spent time jailed as a political prisoner in the 1970s, and, after a time teaching at the University of Khartoum, he left Sudan in 1981 to pursue a degree in folklore at the University of Indiana. Over the years, he has stayed politically active by penning provocative columns on issues such as the rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities. In 1994, he joined the history department at the University of Missouri.
In December 2008, during a lecture at the University of Khartoum, Abdullahi made a stunning announcement. He would retire from his post at MU and return to Sudan to vie for the presidency against Omar al-Bashir, the former general who has ruled uninterrupted for 20 years.
The next spring, he sold his home in Columbia, packed up his voluminous library and, along with his wife, returned home. But almost instantly his campaign hit roadblocks. His fundraising efforts were stagnant, and despite a core group of 15 dedicated volunteers, he had trouble gaining traction. His calls to people he thought would be sympathetic to his message were often met with evasions or a stony silence. Some asked him quite plainly, “Why don’t you quit?”
He knocked on doors, handed out buttons and stood in solidarity with striking union laborers and citizens angry about neighborhood issues. From time to time, he was encouraged when someone recognized him on the street and told him, sotto voce, “Go get them.”
“I think we made some waves,” he said of the campaign.
Ultimately, he was not able to fulfill the requirements to appear on the ballot. He gathered more than the 15,000 necessary signatures but could not secure the minimum signatures from each of Sudan’s 16 states.
He spent the five days of the election appearing as a commentator on a television news network analyzing the results. As he expected, al-Bashir won overwhelmingly with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Perhaps Ibrahim’s greatest disappointment was what he called the bankruptcy of ideas from the opposition parties. Twelve candidates, including one woman, appeared on the ballot for president, but most chose to boycott the election. They told their supporters to stay home. Many cried fraud and hurled accusations of ballot-stuffing without any tangible evidence, he said. Important issues such as al-Bashir’s indictment for war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court were not even brought up by the opposition, he said.
“They even gave people reasons to vote for al-Bashir because they were shilly-shallying,” he said. “They’re never sure what to do.”
Ibrahim says he will remain in Columbia until the fall while his wife works on immigration paperwork. He doesn’t have any future plans to get back into politics but instead will work on programs designed to give Sudanese people a better understanding of their history. He envisions a version of Wikipedia, a series of “national biographies” accessible to the barely literate and a “history day” similar to the one that takes place each year in Columbia.
Ibrahim says he has no regrets about his campaign but wishes he saw something larger swelling up in Sudan. It was the perfect chance for a long-overdue national debate. “It was a missed opportunity,” he said narrowing his eyes. “Probably, you would have to say it was a missed opportunity.”
Tribune reporter T.J. Greaney’s column runs on Thursday’s. Reach him at (573) 815-1719 or [email protected].